Years ago, I learned the trick of keeping a list of what I’ve read from my friend, Susan Messina. Although this year wasn’t a banner year in terms of quantity, I liked much of what I read very much. So I thought I’d share these 30-odd titles here. Some were published this year, some I just got to read in 2017. Perhaps I’ll do the same for theatre, film, and television I saw/watched in 2017. Happy New Year . . .
Books Read (Fiction)
- The Lewis Man (Peter May), January. Not quite as good as the first outing I read, as it shifts back and forth in time and perspective. But I’m learning a lot about Scottish society in the meantime, and he evokes the austerity of the outer islands beautifully.
- The Dry (Jane Harper), February. Not gorgeous prose but a good story about two overlapping murders in the Australian outback, west of Melbourne. Returning adult to the site of a town in which he was accused of murdering his old friend. Comes back when another old friend appears to have murdered his wife and kid. Story unravels, characters sympathetic, atmosphere of drought and heat in a dying rural town.
- Before the Frost (Henning Mankell), March. Linda Wallender story, good plot about a man who survived Jamestown and then returns to the Swedish family he left behind to wreak havoc on them and their town. Interesting characters, too, but the translation seemed very stiff. No doubt better in the original.
- The Hate U Give (Angela Thomas, March). YA novel about an African-American girl who lives in the projects but goes to school at a wealthy, mostly white private school. Nicely told story about racial bias and how someone can cross two-worlds (pros and cons). Her best touch is to change the tone and style of the protagonist’s interior monologue when she’s in different environments, so that her voice has hip-hop intonations in the “neighborhood” and more “white” constructions when she’s at school. A good, important story.
- Exit West (Mohsin Hamid, March). Just a remarkable, post-apocalyptic story about migration and the ways in which we’re always, as he says, migrating all the time, even if that migration is just through He has a wonderfully tautological way with words that’s incredibly knowing and somehow emotionally reassuring, even as he describes the upheaval of violence and intense change. He also humanizes the experience of migration in ways utterly necessary now, in an historical moment in which we’re more prone, thanks to Trump, to demonize one another. His writing is intensely human and humane, and filled with a kind of melancholy that feels authentic and full of truth. In other words, the endings aren’t necessary happy, even though he’s writing a global love story (that’s about so much more than that) but they are true and real to the frailty of human emotion. I love that he doesn’t name the city from which Saeed and Nadia flee, even though you know it’s in the Middle East (he’s from Pakistan, where he still lives much of the time). I love that new cities are built from the rubble of the old, and that the old are familiar: London, California, places remade by the arrival of people who come through magic doors, portals that allow migration to become the norm rather than the exception.
- Waking Lions (Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, April). Translated from Hebrew, an Israeli debut novel about a surgeon exiled to a small hospital in Beersheba because he’s accused his star mentor of corruption. Feeling resentful and sorry for himself, he goes out driving in the desert one night and kills an Eritrean immigrant. The man’s wife tracks the doctor down and blackmails him into maintaining an illegal clinic for other African immigrants. It’s a beautifully written story, full of ethical and moral quagmires, relationship traumas, and choices between styles of life. The stakes she compares—between the privileged doctor and the very smart Eritrean woman, Sikrit, who’s doing everything she can to survive—is astute and compelling.
- The Book of Joan (Lidia Yuknavitch, June). Remarkable dystopian novel, a rewriting of the Joan of Arc story, utterly feminist. She imagines a world in which the rich have transported themselves to space, where they live by sucking the resources out of an Earth that’s been reduced nearly to dust. But resistance continues there, where Joan lives in underground caves, and a cadre of young boys whose bodies haven’t been plumbed for resources make their way toward the light. Resistance continues on the space station, too, as Christine and her gay friend Trinculo conspire against the powers-that-be, led by Jean de Men, a horrible, skin-grafted white blob of life who revels despicably in his power and privilege. A gender-neutral character named Nyx assists the revolutionaries by moving back and forth between Earth and CIEL, the space station. Retelling the plot, however, can’t evoke the intelligence and sometimes lyricism of the writing, which manages to evoke the best of the present as though it’s already the past. Christine, for instance, remembers seeing a film on Earth (which sounds like Zhivago, though it’s not named): “I cried for days after seeing the film. The epic, romantic story, and even its form, got inside me. The micro element of the personal and the macro sweep of the historical seemed to be composed in the film in a way I’d never imagined, woven together like words and music, like melody and harmony. To be human, the film suggested, was to step into the full flurry and motion of all humanity: to bear the weight of circumstances without flinching, to surrender to the crucible—to admit that history was not something in the past but something you consciously step into. Living a life meant knowing you might be killed instantly, like one who wanders into the path of a runaway train. It was the first time I felt a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to the story of a lone human being detached from the cosmos” (82). Lovely.
- Drama (Raina Telgemeier, graphic YA novel, July). Lovely, sweet story about a girl who works the stage crew for her middle-school musical. Manages to get in all sorts of poignant insights about gender fluidity and sexuality, while also empowering the girl, being smart about race, and very clear about the importance of theatre for building subjectivity and community. Published by Scholastic, of all things. How the world has changed.
- Since We Fell (Dennis Lehane, July). Lehane is one of the few male mystery writers I read, because he’s literary and smart. This one is no exception, although as a number of reviews noted, it’s almost two books in one. The first is about a woman trying to find her father, since her recently deceased, controlling mother never shared his name with her. In the process, she meets a private investigator who keeps reappearing in her life, finally becomes her husband, and winds up scamming her profoundly. The plot points get more outrageous as the conclusion races forward, and I’m not quite sure I buy it, but Lehane’s taut and propulsive writing makes that matter very little. And his characters are well drawn, even the woman whose life centers the story.
- Do Not Become Alarmed (Maile Meloy, July). Excellent novel with a page-turning plot, about two American families who go on a cruise somewhere in Latin America and get tragically separated from their children. With shifting narrative voices (including the missing children), Meloy manages to convey multiple perspectives on the local economy and infrastructure, while painting a devastating portrait of American privilege, imperialism, and self-satisfaction. The racial politics aren’t always perfect, but her characters are rendered provocatively and aren’t always sympathetic. She mixes issues of American privilege with border-crossings and drug dealings in ways that draw a skein of implications and points to mutual corruption. Taut, vivid writing.
- A Horse Walks into a Bar (David Grossman, August). Popular and important Israeli novelist; this book recently won a major international award (which I’m now forgetting). Takes place in a bar, where a stand-up “comedian” is monologuing about his life and the state of Israel, in front of a hostile crowd, which includes two people he knows: one an odd woman with whom he grew up, and the other, the narrator, who also knew the protagonist and comes to feel implicated in the stories he tells. The sense of foreboding here is strong; when it doesn’t pay off at the end, you feel a bit cheated. But the painful story is piercing, in its way, and the character of the “comic” remains fully in mind.
- The Secret Chord (Geraldine Brooks, August). Historical fiction about King David, Saul, and Solomon, in Judea. Not my genre, but it did flesh out the biblical history before my summer’s trip to Israel.
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid, September). Very smart, long monologue about a Princeton grad who becomes a captain of industry, until September 11th changes his perspective on America and prompts him to return to his native Pakistan. As he speaks to an unnamed interlocutor in Lahore, the sense of foreboding and antagonism become stronger and more immediate, until the end, when some sort of cataclysm is hinted at but not explicitly delivered. Smart, vital read.
- New People (Danzy Senna, November). I loved her Caucasia, which is quite old at this point. Senna herself is mixed race (white/black) and this one also concerns a mixed-race couple, who are the “new people” in terms of being cool and Brooklyn-based, and chic by virtue of how their lives rewrite a racial narrative. But the central character is an unpleasant and unsympathetic woman who detests her fiancé (their too-perfect relationship makes them the “new people” of the title) and falls in love instead with a fully black poet (who remains something of a cipher throughout the book, since he’s really just a projection of her ambivalence and desire). The plot contrivances here don’t quite work either, but Senna’s satire (vicious) of contemporary race politics, and of a certain slice of NY/Brooklyn cognoscenti, is rather delicious. It’s a spare book, with essentially one idea, but it was a worthwhile read.
- Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng, November). I loved her Everything I Never Told You, which is about the suicide of a young girl, told in flashbacks and cross-cuts. This novel, too, telescopes and extends time, beginning while the prim and proper mother of a Shaker Heights family considers the burning ruin of her house, then flashing back to the story that brought her family to its scorched-earth moment. Ng creates interesting, complicated characters old and young, although in this one, the basic conflicts are charted a bit too coarsely. The white Shaker Heights families are villainous, while the outsiders—by economic class or race—are more sympathetic in ways that feel contrived. But the central characters are drawn with care and affection that makes them interesting and sympathetic—Pearl and her mother, Mia, who have a mysterious past that unfolds over the course of the story. The central question is what makes a mother . . . to her credit, Ng doesn’t answer, but raises all the right questions for consideration.
- Turtles All the Way Down (John Green, YA, December). I’m a fan of his YA fiction, and this one is his most powerful yet. Apparently autobiographical, the novel details the mental spirals of a young woman who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder that rules her life. A very difficult read because it captures so well the implacable voices that lead this woman, against everything rational, to behave in self-destructive ways. Although the ending is hopeful, it doesn’t skirt the sadness and devastation of this disease.
- Disobedience (Naomi Alderman, December). A first-novel by a woman who went on to write The Power, which was listed on many of the best books of 2017 lists. This one—about to be made into a film—concerns two women whose lives intertwined in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of London, where one was the rebellious rabbi’s daughter and the other her smitten, loyal girlfriend. They begin a covert sexual relationship, before the rabbi’s daughter escapes to secular life in the States, and the other stays behind to marry their mutual friend, another Orthodox but yet irreverent Jewish scholar. The writing and plotting is a bit blunt, but Alderman fills the book with lovely spiritual observations and Talmudic exegeses that help illuminate the characters’ thoughts, and her wry humor and sharp observations bring to life the contradictions of a closed, rigidly constrained community. I’m looking forward to reading The Power.
- Autumn (Ali Smith, December). Beautiful rendering of the odd but loyal relationship between an aging man and a very young woman, whose lives intertwine for 50-odd years. The non-linear narrative tells the story in a languorous way, but the prose is strong and vivid, full of allegory and metaphor (leaves, trees, regeneration, growth). Both the old man and the young woman are compelling, unusual characters, and Smith doesn’t concern herself with filling in the details of what happens in their lives so much as charting what they feel about their lives, and the ties of intellect, imagination, and emotion that tie them together. The young woman’s mother, too, becomes a surprisingly rich character, with her own arc from bitter and querulous to an anti-Brexit, pro-immigrant activist who falls in love with another woman. The book always surprised me in pleasurable ways. And moved me deeply.
- The Bird Artist (Howard Norman, 1995, December). Another in my growing list of novels about Newfoundland, this one is as bleak and emotionally rigorous as they all seem to be, recalling the austerity of the landscape and the lives of people whose livelihoods are bound to the sea and an unforgiving geography. The conflict between complex desire and the fundamentalisms of religion abound here, as do those between propriety and freedom. Beautifully told.
- The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern, 2012, December). I had this on my iPad and rediscovered it on a long international flight. A phantasmagoria about a circus created by powerful magicians as a staging ground for a death-to-the-vanquished challenge between two of their proteges. Morgenstern best describes the enchantment of the circus’ visitors, whose intense pleasure and devotion to Le Cirque des Reves makes them into “reveurs,” whose scarlet scarves set them off from the elegant black and white scenography of the circus tents and grounds. The turns of plot are surprising and compelling, the characters courtly (this takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) but passionate. I was charmed and moved by the story’s intelligence and imagination, and its ultimate commitment to life and hope.
Books Read (Non-Fiction)
- A Body Undone: Living on After Great Pain (Christina Crosby, June). Memoir of a tragic accident, in which Crosby fell from her bicycle and shattered her face and spinal cord. She’s now quadriplegic, has been for nearly seventeen years. The book is a combination of theoretical and personal musing, with excursions into stories (as memoir does) about her family in ways that seem peripheral to the main argument, which is about disability and pain. Pitched for a more public audience, but still theory-based, which sometimes means the voice and approach is awkward.
- Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine, July). Smart and eloquent plaint about invisibility, recognition, the pain of the quotidian, and the suffering wrought by history around racial violence.
- The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland (Jim Defede, July). A crisp journalistic account of what happened when 38 planes were detoured to Gander after US airspace was closed on 9/11. The generosity and kindness of the townspeople, who rallied with extraordinary goodwill and a range of supplies; the way people from the planes (the “plane people,” in local parlance) bonded; the fear and anxiety of being away from home during a tragedy and not knowing what was happening. The basis for the musical Come from Away. Touching and informative and hopeful.
- My Promised Land: The Tragedy and Triumph of Israel (Ari Shavit, July). Comprehensive and personal, a sweeping look at the contradictory, complicated politics and policies of the state of Israel since its inception and before. Chock-full of information and ideas and provocative thinking.
- Understanding the Digital World (Brian Kernighan, August). Written for the lay-person, but still a bit complicated. Still, helped me understand some of what goes on under the hood of my electronics.
- What is Populism, Jan-Werner Mueller, Princeton Pre-Read (August). A small but useful outline of what populism means and how it’s roiling contemporary politics. Very helpful in the age of Trump. I learned a lot about the one-way moral convictions of populist groups, and their determination that you’re either for or against them. I hope the first-years learned things from it.
- Dying: A Memoir (Cory Taylor, September). Woman who died of melanoma-related cancer at 61. Eloquent, lovely, brief, mediation on what it means to die, and young. Not as stirring as it might have been, but piercing in moments.